Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Shanti

We left Kaza and continued up the Spiti Valley. We headed past Losar, our refuge from the storm last year, and climbed Kumzum La, the 4990m pass that we had climbed twice in a blizzard. It was much less arduous with dry roads and warm temps.

At the bottom of the pass we hooked a right turn to Baikal or Moon Lake. The road to the lake was challenging with several deep water crossings, loose rock, and lots of exposure. It would be a several hundred meter tumble to the valley floor if one missed a corner.

I noticed several different camps of men raking the desert with straw brooms. Several small clumps dotted the landscape, some with full gunny sacks leaning against them. When we got to the lake trailhead, I realized that the clumps were piles of sheep and goat shit.

The small balls don’t burn as well as cow or yak dung, so they aren’t used for fuel. The herders gather it up to take back to the gardens or fields for fertilizer. Think of making a living in a place so stark that one rakes up the sheepshit in the desert for the family pea patch. Three dollar lattes sure seem silly here.

The short hike to the lake rewarded quickly. The glacier at the top of the valley fed it, so the lake had that beautiful green hue. I saw several minnow type fish from the shore so, maybe it has big fish too. We hustled back to the bikes after a quick lunch because our water crossings were snow fed and would be deeper the longer we dillydallied.

We followed the Chandar River from its birth at the lake all the way down to Chhattru or Chatru or Chattru depending on which sign one read, where we camped for the evening. The road challenged constantly with its ruts, blind hairpins (horn ablaring), loose rocks, goat herds-some of them moving above us and trundling rocks down, water crossings, and scenery.

Every valley varies from the last. The particular beauty of the Chandar Valley is the river itself. It rolls and boils at quite a clip. Not pool drop to pool drop, but just constant rapids with little or no eddy opportunity. Even when one can see the line, there is always a hole or two that would reach up, grab the raft and shake it like a dog with a rat before spitting it downstream to the next.

Alexander the Great tried to cross the Chandar to expand his territory. His troops had one look at the angry, churning mass of mud and boulders and refused to cross it. Every time I stole a peek at it, only a peek at a time will do if one wants to keep the bike on the road and out of the river, I agreed with them. I’m sure some world-class crazy paddlers would give it a go, they could have it. I was content to camp beside it, admiring the glacially-carved walls reminiscent of the Yosemite Valley in California while eating the best food of the whole trip. They kept bringing dish after wonderful dish that had been made on the kerosene two-burner they squatted beside.

The other notable aside from a gazillion stars, the Milky Way, meteors, blah, blah, blah, was that it was our first dog-free evening. It was great to have the roar of the river to sleep to instead of the usual canine symphony.

Doug’s health had been deteriorating since Kaza, and worsened by the time we got to Keylong. Each time he ate food it was so excited to leave his system that it couldn’t decide which way to go. Couple that with altitude sickness, first heart attack at 39, and implanted defribilator and it’s easy to see why he made the right decision to head back to Manali with Jeff rather than risk the affects of climbing higher the next two days.

The rest of us continued on for a night of camping in Sarchu. It is the halfway point between Manali and Leh, so is a popular stop. There are no permanent structures as life would be too harsh come winter. We had another abfab meal and an icy stream to store our beers in before drinking them.

I woke at about three to pee and was rewarded with quite the sky show. Lightning lit up the ridge two valleys to the south, the half moon lit up the north, and off to the west a meteor shower burned trail after trail across the sky. I wish I knew my astronomy better but I think it was the annual Pliedaes shower.

We rode beautiful roads out of Sarchu that begged for fifth gear, which was a rarity in a land where most of the riding was white-knuckle at 30 kph. But frost heaves soon made us ratchet our speeds back for fear of breaking the frame from catching too much air, actually catching the air was fine, it was the landings that were scary.

We climbed twenty-two delicious switchbacks (they call them loops which makes little sense so is perfect for India) on our way to the high point of our trip of 5063 meters. The land was stark with prayer flags the only thing growing. We took some pictures and a couple of deep breaths that didn’t seem to satisfy and headed down to the evening’s destination of Jispa.
Jispa wasn’t much for a town but we had comfortable accomadations and I met an interesting fellow. He and his son were on their way to Leh to install some pre-fab wood cottages that he dealt in.

Wood construction is a bit of a novelty here because if one is caught cutting a tree down, it’s fifteen years in the slammer. All construction is concrete, stone, brick, or a combination there of. His cottages are made of spruce in Russia. They are constructed, numbered, and disassembled for shipment to Delhi.

While I found the cottage industry interesting, it paled in comparison to the story of how he got to Delhi. His grandfather had a 500 mule train that he used to haul rice, tea, and sugar over the Kiber(spelling?) pass. Instead of selling all that stuff for a big o’pile of money, he traded it for guns which he smuggled to the Indian resistance. In 1919 he was caught at the border with his unusual cargo and refused entry.

It was really the best way to be caught. If he had made it into the country, his sentence would have been death or life imprisionment on one of their island jails which is the same as a death sentence only slower. As it was, he only got deported.

When the Brits were ousted in 1953, the Indian government told his family that they would honor their Indian citizenry because his grandfather had been a freedom fighter. So there he was, an Indian citizen living in Kuwait wondering as he was driving to work one day why all the Kuwaiti tanks were zooming through the traffic with him.

A couple of hours later, tanks of a different color filled the streets. He loaded up his family to flee the Iraqis. They noticed his turban (he and his family were Sikhs) and called him their brother and gave him escorted clear passage over the border.

Incidentally, one of our clients had been on a Navy vessel during Desert Shield and said that their ship had advanced warning that the U.S.S. Stark would be fired upon but did nothing. Another example of a false flag to sell a war to a people. But back to the grandson of the gun runner.

They spent several years bouncing through the tribal lands of Iran and the ‘Stans, staying with family connections. Connections that would happily hand you a rpg, uzi, ak-47, or whatever to try out as long as you paid for the cartridge first. So now he sells pre-fab cabins and maybe dabbles in other things.
Our ride down Rhotang La ended the trip on a high note. The muddy, slimy, rocky, wet roads full of Tatas, taxis, and tour buses challenged our riding ability. Especially because visibility was often less than 10 meters and even driving through a cloud, the majority of Indians leave the lights off.

Once we broke out of the cloud we had pouring rain to entertain us until we got back to the Ambassador in Manali. Oh yeah, all that traffic coming off the pass was local tourists celebrating Indian Independence. I guess I would have felt more festive if I were in a country that sold beer on holidays.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Halfway done w/number 1

We took the boys on a day ride to get familiar with the bikes and left-side driving. Back up Solang Valley and they all looked solid so we headed halfway up Rhotang La for lunch. The dry road gave them some idea of what they may be in for without the added stress of hundred meter mud puddles and water crossings, plus traffic was light because we timed it so that we would not be competing with the tour buses.

Larry cut a corner too sharp on the way down and was surprised by a Tata coming around the bend. His front tire caught in the sandy duff and over he went. He had a smashed headlight all right but no injuries, so it was a cheap wipeout. Good to get the first one out of the way so everyone could relax.

Day one on the road involved traffic and heat. We had to wait for a bus to unload all the people from the roof and some from inside so that it could climb up and out of our way on the road to Jalori Pass. Shortly after we passed the bus, Anu pulled over and said, “We stop here for night.” There was barely enough room to park the bikes and all I saw was a cornchip Granny stand. He told us to leave our bags cuz the boys would get them and led us down a little cow trail that turned into a sidewalk. “This special place, in no books,” he said.

The hotel was beautiful with spectacular views of the valley. We could hear singing from down in the bottom of the valley and after we pitched our bags, one of the boys took us down to the annual Raksha Bandhan, which is a festival honoring brothers and sisters.

Women lined up from oldest to youngest with linked arms performed a set dance while singing to a similar line of men. Both lines circled seven or eight men with drums, two men with some kind of oboes and two others with six foot long silver horns straight out of Dr. Suess. The festival lasts for three days with people constantly joining and leaving the circle.

It’s been great to reacquaint myself with our route. Things have changed a bunch since we were here last. The road to Solang no longer requires bouncing over round river rocks for three-quarters of a mile. The future ski resort, a project ten years in the making that Carl, Matt, and I toured won’t open, power lines now criss-cross its slopes.

We stopped for lunch in Recong Peo and I led the way up some crumbled and uneven concrete stairs. I remembered thoroughly enjoying our lunch there last year. I topped out on the stairs and found only a pile of broken bricks where our cafĂ© had been. They hadn’t knocked out all the windows yet so I was able to point out the AkRider sticker to the boys to prove that it was the right place.

We ate next door which was convenient but somewhat below standards, not quite as dark and dirty as the asshole but you could see the hemorrhoids from there. The boys were troopers though; they’ve all traveled quite a bit and rolled with the third-world shake of the dice.

We slept that night in Kalpa, which is an apple orchard community at about 10,000 feet. The neighborhood dogs held quite the symphony for us crescendoing with enthusiasm until the rains started.

We scheduled the tours much earlier than our scouting trip so snowfalls would be rarities that didn’t stick to the roads and avalanche closures would be non-existent. But it’s always something and this time of year is monsoon season.

The dogs quieted all at once up and down the valley as if the maestro’s stick had suddenly stopped. I wondered what had happened. There was no shout from a neighbor followed by a shotgun blast to scare them like I remembered in my youth when dogs were being unruly. I was mid roll over when the rains came.

There was no howling wind or a sprinkle that built in intensity. The sky just opened up. It did whatever was two notches above poured for three hours. Then it didn’t taper off, it simply stopped. The sun poked over the ridge and my favorite blend of heat and humidity cranked while we packed.

Anu voiced his concern at breakfast. That kind of rain often leaves landslides as a reminder of its passing and we would be spending most of the day exposed in that kind of terrain. We had sixty kilometers to cover through a canyon construction zone which is the biggest hydroelectric project in the entire Himalayas, and that’s saying something in a country where the Colorado would be just another river.

We got lucky on the landslides. The rains turned some of the duff into peanut butter which was pretty exciting to spread with our street bikes, but mostly it just kept the dust down.

We drove through shanty towns with rusted corrugated steel roofs dotted with satellite dishes full of naked children and mothers doing laundry in muddy streams and past the various construction zones where men wearing hardhats and flip flops ran jackhammers.

There was a natural stopping point at the end of the construction zone where we watered up and Mariska pointed across the valley and up maybe 600 vertical feet to where the new road would be. Last year we could see the frontline folks blazing the trail with pickaxes while a team behind them trundled rocks down to build up the sides. It looks like it may be ready to pave already, truly an incredible amount of progress to make in one year by hand.

We stayed the night in Sarahan. A work crew mixed concrete for the third story of a building next to our hotel. They had the old rope and shovel team (one man holds the shovel, his partner pulls the shovel through the pile via a rope attached just above the spade, then the handle holder lifts and dumps the rocks into the waiting basket) filling basket after basket with aggregate, an old man (who looked about a hundred and twelve but was likely in his fifties) shoveling sand and a young boy adding water. I watched for a long time trying to figure out what sort of mix they were running. Knowing that an extra quart of water in a yard of concrete weakens the mix by thirty percent, it was easy to imagine why the story below sagged on the far end.

I read a book after dinner until two boys with music blaring out of their cell phone came up and asked me if I had any money for their foreign currency collection, a common scam here. I told them that I had already converted my money to rupees and asked them if they wanted to join me.

School is compulsory here until age eight or nine depending on whom you ask. They looked to be about that age so accounting for poor nutrition, I put their age at ten or so and asked them if they went to school and how old they were. Yes, an hour bus ride each way and thirteen year old twins. Their father owned our hotel which made them some of the wealthiest kids in town and still they showed no signs of puberty at thirteen and were much slighter in build than the average American third-grader. I guess I don’t mean average third-grader but the ones whose parents don’t consider Sunny Delight and Ho-hos as a snack option.

They gave me some Hindi lessons at my urging. I won’t be conversing about the local cricket team or whether India should really be focusing on going to the moon with the locals anytime soon, but my pleases and thank yous are now pretty solid.

We’ve been on the Inner Line for the last few days and are currently layed over in Kaza. The Inner Line was opened to tourists, Indian and foreign alike, in the Nineties. It is a well-maintained, by Indian standards, road with very little traffic save for military vehicles. It was built because China decided to move the border about five miles closer and the Indian government decided that that was shit up with which it should not put.

Our first night in the restricted area was at about 12,000 feet in the village of Nako. I hiked up to an abandoned monastery with Colin. The whole area is terraced with rock walls and aqueducts channel snowmelt to the apple trees and pea patches.

The tops of all the walls and fences have flat rocks with Sanskrit symbols carved in them and I’m talking the top two feet of many miles of walls and fences stacked with flat rocks carved by hand from long before the Iron Age. It’s hard to wrap one’s mind around how long people have been carving on those rocks; it must be in the thousands of years.

Just got back from a day ride to a one thousand year old monastery and the highest road accessible village in India. At the monastery a little boy of four or so grabbed Mariska’s hand and pulled him up two flights of stairs and into a dark room with candlelight shimmering off the walls. The boy waved to a monk in the corner and left. The monk asked us if we wanted tea.

His master relieved him and took us on a tour of the facilities. He had been brought there by his parents when he was six. Twenty-four years later, he is about halfway through his training. He has taken a vow of celibacy and poverty as have all of the 170 monks there.

The village of Kippa gives them food and that along with donations keep the lights on. The fourteenth Dali Lama stayed there in 1971, 2003, and is slated to again in 2010. The monk showed us the bed, it is the same one each incarnation of the Dali Lama has slept on since the monastery opened.

Many of the rooms are filled with ancient scrolls, paintings, and the like. But what most impressed me was the monk sitting cross-legged on the floor in the last room we visited. He held a thick hemp rope in his hands. He kept rhythmically leaning back with his arms straight which pulled the rope.

The rope spun a prayer wheel, which is really a cylinder, that was about eight feet tall and six feet in diameter. The top edge of the wheel had one silver bar maybe a foot long protruding from it. The bar struck a knocker on one of two bells as it went by.

The bells were different sizes and so gave off distinct peals as the cylinder spun. The monk kept up the pulling as a form of meditation until another one came to relieve him. The cylinder has been spinning and the bells ringing twenty-four hours a day for four hundred years.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Field trip

We started our day at the hot springs in the temple just up from our hotel. You leave your shoes outside the temple with a man who will keep an eagle eye on them for one rupee(3cents.)

Many locals bathe daily in the temple pool. The water is much hotter than you will find at a hot tub in the states. Your skin quits sending the pain signal to the brain instantly and you relax into a puddle.

We had fresh squeezed oj from a roadside stand then headed to a rooftop restaurant for chai and breakfast. We shared a table w/ a Frenchman named Tony. He told us about his ten years here while he rolled mixtee after mixtee. Halfway through smoking his first the owner came to the table and asked him for a hit. Tony handed it to him and he went about his business, merrily puffing while he made breakfasts and teas and clearing tables.

After breakfast we returned to the hotel to find two shiny Royal Enfields parked outside. Mine had 735.3 km on it. Anu pulled up and suggested that we head up Solang Valley.

There is a rope across the road at the ski resort. We asked if we could park on the uphill side of the rope to get our bikes off the road. Bikes secured, we headed down to the clearing for a chai.

A constant stream of paragliders and bubble boy transport systems provided our entertainment. The paraglider pilots have an interesting technique that involves running over their passengers when they land. Most of them look young and inexperienced. I think they are also too small to effectively flair the wings at the crucial moment.

While the pilot gets off the client he just smashed into the ground two boys roll the wing up into a ball that may or may not be a tangled mess by the time it gets hiked back to the top of the hill.

People mill about the landing zone, sometimes eliciting a shout from a pilot that fears he may clip them. The north side of the clearing serves as the runout zone for the bubble ball things that hold two or more passengers. I never saw one catch air but they do roll along at a good clip and probably smell delicious with the residue of lots of vomit baking in the heat.

It became clear when we left why Anu wanted to park uphill of the ropeblock. We headed up the valley in the area restricted to Army and road building vehicles.

The freshly paved road twisted and climbed up the valley. The air cooled as we got closer to the hanging glaciers dribbling down from the peaks.

The pavement ended because they had come to the point where they planned to begin the tunnel. It is to be 9 km long and is necessary as an avalanche mitigation measure. The hope is that Leh will be accessible nearly year round.

Supply trucks must climb steep and dangerous Rhotang La to get to Leh at present. The rough road skirts numerous avalanche paths and usually closes for the season shortly after the first snows fall.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Smells

Sally (shameless plug for alaska travel source) pulled some strings, worked her magic, threatened, cajoled or whatever and got me on Thursday's oversold flight. Mariska and Anu picked me up in Kulu and only an hour late, which is practically early in India.

The first thing I noticed was the heat. 34 degrees Celcius (double it and add 30 for F, I'll do this one for you, it's 98.) Then the smog which along with smelling, instantly makes throats scratchy and eyes watery. Then it's the arnica, nag chumpa, and human waste(sweat, feet, and feces.) Then the foods hit yer nose. The curries and spices and fennels, oh my.

Speaking of food, one of the meals on my Continental flight was a chickpea burrito. I guess they thought they could have a meal that included one familiar thing from each major culture on the plane. But the two don't really go together so, ah well it's the thought that counts.

I'm in the mountain town of Manali, in the Himalayan foothills, I gots 15 large in my pocket, a great friend to adventure with, a bike that may or not breakdown every day, and all the crappy beer I care to drink. Pretty good alright.